Shenmue II was released on the Dreamcast towards the premature end of the console’s life cycle and Sega’s adventures as a games hardware company. The company’s new direction meant that many titles such as Shenmue II got a chance of being played by more players on other consoles. Shenmue II was released, along with a couple of other Dreamcast titles, on the Xbox and now it has been given a new lease of life yet again with the release of the Shenmue collection on the current generation of consoles.
Shenmue II sees main protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, continue his quest for revenge as he arrives in Hong Kong. What is interesting about this location change is how it affects Ryo’s life. In a way, it’s similar to the transition into adulthood in the real world, where it’s no longer possible to rely on adults for help and also coming to grips with the many challenges life throws at you. Ryo now has to more or less work for a living or at least for the initial parts of this sequel and also has to pay for accommodation at one point.
Whilst it’s nothing new to players of the original, a large chunk of the game is spent working various jobs to earn money needed to complete some objectives and to pay for taking parting optional activities. The original only had one main job that Ryo could do and whilst driving a forklift to move boxes wasn’t the most exciting job, it definitely beats most sources of income found in this sequel. One of the better options consists of a clumsily put together mini-game, where Ryo and a coworker work together to move boxes, with their hands, from one side of a space to the other side. It can become extremely tedious to do so, since it only involves correctly pressing on-screen directions. Another mini-game that uses the same concept sees Ryo carry piles of books to be aired out. The controls used for mini-games can be borderline frustrating, due to how vague they are at times, such as one where Ryo must catch a falling leaf three times in a row with two fingers.
Other ways to earn money see Ryo take part in different types of gambling and even physical activities such as arm wrestling. Somehow the development team has made every single one of these activities unappealing and even tedious after doing them for more than two or three times. Perhaps one of the main reasons why these various ways to earn money don’t work so well is the fact that it’s necessary to earn certain amounts of money to make some story progress at different points. It happened once in the original, but it was done in a way that didn’t feel forced. In Shenmue II, earning money can seem as appealing as booking a trip to the dentist.
The size of the locations in Shenmue II make those in Shenmue seem tiny in comparison. Shenmue II is split into three chapters and each one has its own location with quarters to separate different sections within them. It’s great to see how much effort the team went to make an even bigger world for players to explore, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s one that is as fascinating as the one in Shenmue. Given the urban settings for two of these locations, it means that most people Ryo interacts with are complete strangers. Yet they are also strangers who are usually fine with taking Ryo to the location of the current objective – a telltale sign that players struggled with finding places in Shenmue. Yet in Shenmue, there were several places, such as Tom’s hot dog stand, that stood out to make it easier to remember where Ryo needed to go next.
The various quarters in each of the two bigger locations all seem too similar to get a good idea of where to go. It feels like navigating a maze at times and the maps that can be purchased don’t seem all that useful. Whilst 80s rural Japan was a fascinating era to explore in Shenmue, it doesn’t feel the same when exploring these new locations.
What Shenmue II does improve on from the original is the use of the supporting cast to help flesh out the main story. There is also a bigger emphasis on including strong female characters that Ryo learns a lot from. The focus on martial arts and how they are related to the overall mystery of the much coveted mirrors is also fantastic and one of the main reasons to keep playing. In fact, getting to learn more about these fighting styles in the first chapter of the game is definitely one of the main highlights.
Those that enjoyed the quick time events (QTE) in Shenmue will no doubt like the fact that they are back. In fact, there is a new QTE included where multiple directions and buttons must be quickly pressed in a row. For some reason it was decided that it was necessary to lose some progress when failing some of these. At one point Ryo has to go up ten floors by mostly using planks in what can only be described as a building that is in dire need of being demolished. Whilst the handy save system ensures that players can save before attempting to cross any of these planks riddled with QTE, it still means having to quit and then loading the save file. In other sections, this isn’t a viable solution given that it’s necessary to do some sections again, such as when following one of the main antagonists on her bizarre walk to shake up local businesses for money and discounted/free goods.
There are some improvements that make for a better experience when compared to the original. It’s possible to skip cut-scenes and also time to jump right into the moment when certain story objectives take place in. The controls are still just as clumsy and make it somewhat difficult to turn. At least the controls used for fighting still work really well and the continued focus on learning new martial arts makes it even more fun to take on the many opponents that Ryo faces.
Many of the optional activities from Shenmue also make a return, like the arcade machines and miniature toys that Ryo can collect. There are new activities to take part in, such as taking photos of places and characters and the game even provides filters.
The remaster itself is looking good and the use of a slightly wider screen format to display cut-scenes makes them look better than those in Shenmue. There are a couple of minor issues that may appear whilst playing it, but it’s nothing that will have a negative impact on how the game is played.
It’s clear that Shenmue II manages to successfully improve on some of the weaker parts of Shenmue. It’s also clear that its ambitious plan to be a bigger and bolder sequel doesn’t always work in its favour. Still, there is no doubt that it’s worth playing just for the many story twists. Even the somewhat weaker second chapter, which sees the characters navigate several maze like corridors within tall buildings, has some great story moments that build up to the reveals in the final chapter in the game. Shenmue II isn’t always the sequel the original deserved, but it still has many moments worth experiencing.